The 50 Best Songs of 2020

Music Lists Best Songs
The 50 Best Songs of 2020

In a year saddled with the stressors of several, songs are one of the few means of escape on which we’ve remained able to rely. Whether it’s the distinct high point of an all-around outstanding album, or a lone single that hits your ear like a rogue wave, there’s nothing like discovering a song that immediately announces itself as a newfound favorite in the making—one you know you’ll return to again and again, watching rapt as it catches the light of each listen in dazzling and unexpected ways. We’re in this business for the songs that render your Spotify Wrapped so skewed, it’s unsharable; the songs that make you accidentally fling your phone across the room while scrambling to Shazam them; the songs that stop you in your tracks and make you wonder, “Why am I just now hearing this? And how soon can I hear it again?”

In 2020, each of us is a strange combination of shut-in and overexposed, rendering inner peace a luxury few, if any, can afford. So our humble hope is that even one of the songs spotlit below bowls you the hell over, only to bring you right back for more. To be clear, we’re confident they will—of the thousands of new songs we heard in 2020, and the hundreds voted on by the Paste Music team, we painstakingly whittled our list down to the 50 tracks we simply couldn’t live without. These songwriters spun gold out of sadness and loss, fear and yearning, a trip to Japan and the J.F.K. assassination. They overwhelmed us with walls of sound and stunned us with little more than their unadorned voices. They laughed in genre’s face, conjuring up funk, art-pop, Americana, emo, blues-rock, jazz, trip-hop, post-punk and the utterly unclassifiable—often in the space of a single song. Some of these tracks appear on albums we tapped as 2020’s best, and some don’t, but each one is worth every moment you’ll spend with it.

The events of this year have muted much of life—here are 50 unforgettable ways to fill that silence.

Listen to Paste’s Best Songs of 2020 playlist on Spotify here.

50. Dry Cleaning: “Scratchcard Lanyard”

Making their debut on their new label 4AD, London-based rising post-punk quartet Dry Cleaning shared “Scratchcard Lanyard” in mid-November. Like a less dreary descendent of “Fitter Happier,” “Scratchcard Lanyard” finds Dry Cleaning delighting in the mundane, with lead vocalist Florence Shaw deadpanning lines like “I’ve come to hand-weave my own bunk bed ladder in a few short sessions” over jangly guitars and an eminently danceable bassline. Through its cool detachment, the song suggests some value embedded in everyday nonsense while still maintaining an ironic distance. Meanwhile, the song’s must-see visual, the directorial debut of one Rottingdean Bazaar (that is, artist duo James Theseus Buck and Luke Brooks, who also saw to its set design), centers on Shaw, whose speak-singing face appears larger than life thanks to the tiny nightclub constructed around it. —Scott Russell

49. A Girl Called Eddy: “Been Around”

Releasing one album and then disappearing for 15 years is quite a way to make an entrance and exit. Singer/songwriter Erin Moran, who records as A Girl Called Eddy, chose this path and then returned with a new album out of the blue this year, Been Around—a record surely worth the wait for any original fans. The title track, like much of the album, revels in classic Laurel Canyon sounds, and Moran’s astounding vocals and wisdom. Swells of piano, horns and jazzy percussion coalesce around Moran’s rich pipes, and build towards a grand finish marked by choir vocals. Its melancholy yet triumphant aura is absolutely undeniable. —Lizzie Manno

48. Jeff Parker: “Build a Nest (feat. Ruby Parker)”

On his wondrous album Suite for Max Brown, released in partnership with ultra-cool record label du jour International Anthem, experimental guitarist Jeff Parker perfects his years-long fusion of beats, samples, live instruments and improvised jazz. That blend is especially intoxicating on opening track “Build a Nest,” which features Parker’s 17-year-old daughter Ruby on vocals: “There are no trap doors if you believe in fate,” she sings soulfully, bringing real human warmth to the palette of hip-hop drums, jumbled keys and riotous electric guitar that swirls around her. —Ben Salmon

47. Anjimile: “Maker”

Giver Taker is captivating in its detailed storytelling, luscious harmonies and admirable vulnerability. Anjimile’s devotion to his craft is both inspiring and harrowing, which we hear in the highs and lows of this consummate project. His trials and tribulations have only fueled his creative vision. He’s at his boldest on “Maker,” in which he unapologetically takes up space he knows wasn’t originally designed for him: “I’m not just a boy / I’m a man / I’m not just a man / I’m a god / I’m a maker / I’m your maker.” —Candace McDuffie

46. Arlo Parks: “Black Dog”

Few lyrics in 2020 were as universally impactful as Arlo Parks’ “It’s so cruel what the mind can do for no reason” on “Black Dog.” The budding West London singer/songwriter speaks directly to our depressive states and how sometimes even leaving the house feels too daunting to face. She delivers it with such gentle amiability, over tranquil guitar strums and a placid beat, that you can feel how much she cares. And when so many of us grapple with mental health issues but don’t know where to turn to talk or cope, we sometimes need a friend like Arlo to give us that caring nudge or even just to be an ear to lend. —Adrian Spinelli

45. beabadoobee: “Care”

You’ll still find some of the otherworldly keyboard hisses and acoustic moments that defined beabadoobee’s early work on Fake It Flowers, but it’s clear she’s swinging for the fences this time around. The first two tracks on her debut album, “Care” and “Worth It,” are some of her punchiest songs to date, with the former leaning on a bubbly chorus with stop-start guitars and the latter centered around a 1975-like synth pattern and more guitar explosions. She’s not much of a lyrical whiz, but her vulnerable, straightforward sentiments are more important than the lines themselves. She gets most of her power from her ultra-chic, gauzy vocals, which are effortless and contrast with the harsh guitars rather well. —Lizzie Manno

44. Tkay Maidza: “Shook”

Australian rapper and recent 4AD signing Tkay Maidza is taking names on her single “Shook.” “I go by the name written on my necklace / Never been about the games unless you want a death wish,” Maidza spits with cool, calm vigor over eccentric beats. The earthquake she alludes to in the song’s fiery refrain doesn’t take very long to set in. Her amusing wordplay, with references to Huckleberry Finn and TikTok, is accented by unwinding, sinister synths, and by the time the dizzying, alarm clock-dinging breakdown rolls around, our metaphorical cages have been thoroughly rattled—or, shall we say, shook. —Lizzie Manno

43. Denzel Curry, Kenny Beats: “DIET_”

Miami MC Denzel Curry and in-demand producer Kenny Beats are two of the hottest figures in just-off-the-mainstream hip-hop, and the beauty of their first collaboration, UNLOCKED, is that it feels fresh and unfussed over. The best track on the album is “DIET_,” which clocks in under two-and-a-half minutes but still manages to pack in a bunch of clever wordplay, a weird beat that wobbles and stutters, and one of the rap moments of the year, when Curry shifts his flow into a full-throated DMX imitation. It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s a rousing convergence of past and future dopeness tucked into one of the coolest tracks of the year. —Ben Salmon

42. Denise Chaila: “Chaila”

Paste named Zambian-born, Irish-raised artist Denise Chaila one of 13 Irish acts to know in 2020 for her “enviable flow” and impressive early releases. “Chaila” isn’t just a namesake single, it’s a vigorous reclamation of one’s identity. Chaila literally spells out her surname and gives examples of ridiculous mispronunciations she’s had to endure, but above all, this track is a glowing, masterful theme tune for a promising hip-hop artist. “Don’t need your concern if you’ll look at me / And see a ‘Trocáire kid’ / Flow on lough like Derg / Don’t care what you heard / My word is my bond / And my name is my word / The soul of my world,” Chaila raps with defiance over a strutting guitar line and downtempo beat. —Lizzie Manno

41. Yves Jarvis: “For Props”

Yves Jarvis’ latest album Sundry Rock Song Stock is a strange yet satisfying sensory experience. Its bubbling, offbeat sounds tickle parts of your ear that you didn’t even know existed, and his tantalizing vocal tones also scratch a pressing itch. “For Props’’ is the perfect combination of those two dynamics as Jarvis’ smooth, layered vocals sit atop a pleasing, mid-tempo folk-rock song, before everything is swallowed up by meditative percussion. Those percussive sounds then become increasingly warped and spiky, building the foundation for the challenging ambient/electronic follow-up track “Ambrosia.” —Lizzie Manno

40. Tierra Whack: “Dora”

Few MCs can blend idiosyncratic melody with verbal acrobatics the way Tierra Whack can, and the rapper’s recent moves have been as eccentric as her music. After welcoming listeners to Whack World (15 songs, 15 minutes, near-infinite replayability) in 2018, the Philly art-rap rebel has continued to release one-offs, including fall 2020 drop “Dora,” on which she affirms a taste for the finer things—success she’s earned her own way—with tongue firmly in cheek. “Buy me nice things / Give me compliments,” she opens in singsong, later musing, “I’m in Dior, I think I just might buy me a horse.” Concise yet abundant and silly yet deadly serious, “Dora” is a Whack track through and through, a celebration of just rewards for an indispensable artist on the rise. —Scott Russell

39. Sweater Curse: “Close”

For their second EP Push/Pull, Sweater Curse really come out of their shell, amplifying their faint post-punk tinges and sky-high pop hooks. The EP was promoted with singles “All The Same” and “Close,” the band’s two best songs to date. While “All The Same” is a peek into their dynamic, sharper side, “Close” features tried-and-true, big-hearted indie rock. This is the meat and potatoes of any melancholy Australian indie rock band. But for a promising group like Sweater Curse, this is their victory lap. It’s a stunningly pretty, widescreen tune (written with the help of fellow Aussie indie rocker Alex Lahey), begging to be played a hundred times over, no matter how up or down you’re feeling. Vocally, Monica Sottile goes the extra mile, framing not just each line, but every word with the perfect, affecting cadence. —Lizzie Manno

38. Eartheater: “Below the Clavicle”

Much like the monoliths intriguing the internet of late, this song from Queens-based art-pop multi-instrumentalist Alexandra Drewchin, aka Eartheater, is unsettling in its otherworldliness, an alien artifact both beautiful and disorienting. It’s that very mystique that’s on Drewchin’s mind here: Struggling to locate a thought or feeling so embryonic, it has yet to actually enter her head—lingering instead “Below the Clavicle”—she sings over a delicate bed of acoustic chords, strings and synths, “The meaning hasn’t come up yet / It’s still under the surface.” Drewchin’s ethereal vocals hit like an icepick to the spine, visceral and sudden, particularly on the song’s stunning refrain—its power gets under your skin and stays there, daring you to speak its name. —Scott Russell

37. Angelica Garcia: “Guadalupe”

Angelica Garcia’s Cha Cha Palace is without a doubt one of the most vibrant records of 2020. Garcia’s amalgamation of electro-pop, rock, Latin pop, folk and blues is simply magnetic, and her confidence radiates throughout. Though not quite as danceable as some of the other tracks, the slow-crawling “Guadalupe” has a dramatic power and important message worth celebrating. The song is an ode to Our Lady of Guadalupe and the everyday women who exude similar qualities of strength and kindness, but don’t receive the same amount of respect as a glorified saint. Garcia shares her feelings of awe towards the patron saint of Mexico, while also affirming, “Power isn’t defined by your physique.” —Lizzie Manno

36. Dehd: “Desire”

Flower of Devotion, recorded in Chicago in April and August of 2019 (their acclaimed sophomore album Water was released that May), and produced by Jason Balla, wastes no time in blossoming. Its first two tracks, the sunny and lovesick “Desire,” followed by antisocial lead single “Loner,” showcase Dehd’s surging dynamism by way of layered arrangements that swirl around conflicted feelings, as conveyed via Emily Kempf and Balla’s complex vocal interplay. “Desire” finds the duo debilitated by romantic longing (“When will this hoping feel like a wing? / For now I’m soaking, weak in my knees”), swapping bittersweet lyrics over warm, washed-out guitar chords, thrumming bass and Eric McGrady’s insistent beat, which hammers like a heart racing as the song crescendos. “Desire, let me out,” Kempf and Balla beg in unison at its apex, their voices multiplying along with their helplessness to resist that eponymous emotion, even in light of its high price. —Scott Russell

35. Fleet Foxes: “Can I Believe You”

Perhaps no song on Fleet Foxes’s excellent 4th LP, Shore, illustrates the album’s concept of celebrating life amid our inner demons’ best attempts to thwart it quite like “Can I Believe You.” Singer Robin Pecknold literally talks to his mind about the struggle to communicate with his own thoughts, impulses and anxieties and in vintage Fleet Foxes fashion, that conversation is washed in bucolic beauty. On an album that Pecknold produced on his own throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, he found incredible ways to involve his band and collaborators. On “Can I Believe You,” it’s an edited megamix chorus of 500 fans on Instagram who sent clips to Pecknold of them singing the hymnal. It’s a gorgeous and thoughtful representation of how strange, but still magnificent, making music in 2020 can be. —Adrian Spinelli

34. Laura Marling: “Alexandra”

While Laura Marling has been a fixture in the folk and folk-adjacent worlds for nearly a decade now, she has never sounded perhaps more like the forefathers and -mothers of folk than on her new album, Song For Our Daughter. She recalls a host of Jonis and Joans as she meanders through a forest of melancholy folk music. The standout tune is “Alexandra,” a sweeping Laurel Canyon-esque folk-pop song that would’ve fit right in on a Newport setlist from the 1960s. It’s that good. —Ellen Johnson

33. Lomelda: “Hannah Sun”

“Hannah Sun” is undoubtedly the centerpiece of Lomelda’s Hannah. It’s a relaxed late-summer jam bristling with woodwinds and a brightness that’s hard to place, but undeniably present. She floats through various locales (“my hometown,” “Chicago,” “Atlanta” and “Jersey,” to name a few) while reminiscing on the lessons learned through a particular relationship (“Glad you held me too, though I didn’t know how to be closer to you,” she sings) before addressing herself directly (“Hannah, do no harm”). Like so many painters and poets have done before her, Hannah Read creates a self-portrait in “Hannah Sun,” and it’s a dazzling thesis for this record. —Ellen Johnson

32. Peel Dream Magazine: “Pill”

Joe Stevens’ new follow-up as Peel Dream Magazine, Agitprop Alterna, isn’t as minimal as its predecessor, but it still thrives on glorious drone and his reassuring whispers. The opening track “Pill” centers on Kevin Shields-like overdrive and the resulting sonic force, and these stretches of fuzzy, cheek-fluttering guitars definitely make their presence known throughout the album, but particularly on this song and the penultimate “Eyeballs,” with its heady, plug-and-chug distortions. Peel Dream Magazine are usually good about blending their influences, but “Pill” unapologetically utilizes the My Bloody Valentine playbook—the vocal echoes sound eerily similar to Bilinda Butcher’s wispy exhales on “To Here Knows When.” —Lizzie Manno

31. Gum Country: “Somewhere”

“Somewhere” merges ’90s noise rock and twee pop, and it will give you that same euphoric tingle you felt after falling in love with your first underground jangle-pop band. Nimble guitar riffs swarm around Courtney Garvin’s subtle, sweet vocals, and it captures everything great about fuzzy rock and good-natured, classic indie-pop. The video’s scratchy footage of the band in a warehouse only further emphasizes their grunge-y, throwback glory, as it looks like a Breeders or Sonic Youth video you would’ve seen endlessly on MTV back in the day. —Lizzie Manno

30. Johanna Warren: “Twisted”

On Chaotic Good, Johanna Warren decided to start a brash folk riot in the form of her fourth and final promo single “Twisted.” It might very well be the angriest and most impassioned folk track of the year—gurgling screams ring out over gleaming guitars, but even fans of dainty folk will gravitate to her simmering raw emotions. “I used to be too concerned with maintaining a certain crystalline prettiness in my high register to ever let myself go there,” Warren says. “It was a very restrictive approach to such a versatile instrument as the human voice. But now that prettiness is something I specifically try to avoid. I’d much rather my voice sound rough and textured. I’m more interested now in trying to make as many different kinds of sounds as I can.” —Lizzie Manno

29. Hum: “Waves”

On Hum’s overdriven “Waves,” you can hear the windy central guitar line try to outdo itself in real time as their pedal-fiddling reaches life-affirming heights. Its mythical scale is only enhanced by lines of an apocalypse—but a calming and poetic one at that: “And the traces of morning will lead us to the end / Where the dying landscape meets the water / And the waves of you roll over me again.” —Lizzie Manno

28. Empty Country: “Marian”

Across four increasingly ambitious Cymbals Eat Guitars albums, Joe D’Agostino established himself as one of the best lyricists of his generation. With “Marian”—the song that ushers in his first LP as a solo artist—he achieves something new: a glistening mini-epic that binds together real family tragedy, fictitious vignettes set in long-ago West Virginia, and expressionistic imagery into one fascinating whole. The song is written from the perspective of a clairvoyant 1960s miner who predicts his own death and his infant daughter’s future life, including a reference to an unnamed plague that was meant to signify the AIDS epidemic but now feels a little clairvoyant itself. The track is warmer and brighter than past Cymbals epics like “ … And The Hazy Sea” or “Laramie,” with honeyed harmonies and a spotlight on D’Agostino’s piercing falsetto. —Zach Schonfeld

27. Lianne La Havas: “Bittersweet”

Lianne La Havas’ lauded 2015 album, Blood, revealed the London singer/songwriter as an artist intent on blurring the boundaries between pop and neo-soul. Then came … nearly five years of silence. Which felt like forever at the time, but looking back, it just heightened the impact of the first single (and opening track) from La Havas’ incredible self-titled third album. From its unhurried four-count intro, twinkling jazz-club vibes and sumptuous crescendos to its universally relatable verses and redemptive chorus, “Bittersweet” is unmistakably the work of a more mature, more confident artist at the height of her powers. —Ben Salmon

26. No Joy: “Four”

A standout example of Motherhood’s multiplicity is track four, “Four” (natch), which Jasamine White-Gluz called “perhaps my favorite No Joy song ever written.” Hypnotic electronic guitar notes buzz and bend, slowly multiplying into a dull roar of feedback punctuated only by piano and handclaps, like 90 seconds of a high-tension wire being pulled tight to the point of snapping—and just when you think it’s about to break, all that pressure just evaporates, with a serene trip-hop beat bubbling up in its place. Of course, it’s not long before that cathartic groove transforms, in turn, into a hard-nosed, post-punk instrumental, its caustic guitars swelling and receding like a pair of black lungs clinging to life. —Scott Russell

25. Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist: “Something to Rap About”

The centerpiece of immaculate Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist collaboration Alfredo, “Something to Rap About” is a meal unto itself. It all starts with The Alchemist’s ridiculously dreamy beat: Sampling David T. Walker’s “On Love,” its guitar and piano flourishes waft past like clouds of smoke, as if the track itself is periodically exhaling these serene melodies, which serve as its de facto hook. The sumptuous instrumentation is an improbably effective foil to a pair of gravelly, yet generous verses from Gibbs and Tyler, the Creator. The former is introspective, looking back at the hard-boiled life he’s parlayed into an art (“God made me sell crack, so I had somethin’ to rap about”) while acknowledging the conflict between his past and future: “You n*ggas bringin’ out the old me / I’m tryna live to 93 and see the old me.” An older and wiser Tyler, meanwhile, nails his lengthy verse on the first take, his above-the-fray boasts hitting no less hard for his mispronunciation of “Mykonos.” The result is certainly something to write about. —Scott Russell

24. The Chicks: “Gaslighter”

If they didn’t already have enough of these already, “Gaslighter,” the lead single and title track from The Chicks’ latest album, is another anthem for women scorned. Seventeen years after they were shunned from the country music institution (and popular music at large, at least for a while), this song is almost too good to be true. It’s a revenge track, a breakup song and a souped-up, banjo-featuring country banger all in one. “You’re sorry, but where’s my apology?” they sing. Not only are they chastising a low-down scoundrel for getting himself into this mess, but they’re also calling him (and everyone in the music industry who ostracized them all those years ago) out with guns blazing: “You made your bed and then your bed caught fire.” It’s the same spirit of “Goodbye Earl,” but with a post-#MeToo edge. The song arrives with a punchy music video à la the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt opening credits, full of gussied-up black-and-white footage, edited internet memes and plenty of pink power. —Ellen Johnson

23. Told Slant: “Family Still”

“Family Still” is a poetic exploration of interpersonal dynamics. “Power isn’t taking / It’s making you give in freely / And I hope you don’t come home / and think it’s enough to be near me,” Felix Walworth sings in a gentle tone on this single from Told Slant’s latest album Point The Flashlight and Walk. This layered acoustic track excels in its dissection of the complicated shades of intimacy: “What can be said of desire / when every longing instilled in my heart was instilled in such a violent world?” —Lizzie Manno

22. The Weather Station: “Robber”

“Robber” is far more mysterious and less grounded in folk-rock than anything Tamara Lindeman’s The Weather Station has done to date. Lindeman first describes the track’s titular subject in terms at once mythical and like those kids use to brag about not thinking Santa Claus is real. “I never believed in the robber,” she sings as percussive pitter-patter and fluttering pianos paint a whimsical, lightly ominous backdrop. When she later elucidates the robber’s traits, it’s clear she’s hinting at a far more everyday demon: “He had permission” of, among other things, words, laws and banks, and “it was all done real carefully.” The song’s spasmodic outro is likewise enigmatic yet deliberate, with Wurlitzer, strings and sax extending a guiding hand to a mystical plane unknown. A welcome left turn for Lindeman, “Robber” is at once a bold reintroduction and yet another riveting tale from an ever-unsparing storyteller. —Max Freedman

21. Molina: “Parásito”

Molina’s debut EP Vanilla Shell is an absorbing canvas of art-pop, synthwave, psych-pop and darkwave. Though she embraces left-field soundscapes, her angelic vocals would draw anyone in. Key track “Parásito” is made up of distinct sections and atmospheres—each one more fascinating than the next—beginning with icy dream-pop, followed by hallowed ambient-pop and hypnotic new wave. It also features unexpected yet immaculate guitar plucks you’d hear from an ‘80s stadium rock band, and her characteristically gorgeous, layered vocals. —Lizzie Manno

20. Ben Seretan: “Am I Doing Right by You?”

On his first album in almost four years, New York singer/songwriter Ben Seretan churns out stirring folk-rock with an impressive level of dynamism. The album highlight, “Am I Doing Right By You?” features layers of clamorous guitars and busy horns, but there are also bare passages that give way to Seretan’s hushed, introspective vocals. It’s an unpredictable thunderstorm—complete serenity one minute and ground-shaking bluster the next. With each listen, another sprinkle of intriguing, atmospheric sounds pours out, but its vast emotional capacity remains a constant. —Lizzie Manno

19. Midwife: “S.W.I.M.”

Midwife’s Forever is a gorgeous, devastating tribute to Madeline Johnston’s late friend, Colin Ward. The penultimate track “C.R.F.W.” is a recording of Ward reading a stirring poem about life, love and consciousness, reassuring us that “death is not violent,” but merely akin to a leaf letting go of its branch without fear. The latter half of the track is filled with languorous ambient sounds, vibrating with the energy of everything that has lived or ever will live—after all, Ward says each of us are “an infinite number of people” with “thousands of years in [our] blood.” These mind-blowing sentiments are the backdrop for the even more emotionally painful final track “S.W.I.M.,” in which Johnston chronicles a peaceful surrender similar to that of the humble leaf, but over smoldering guitars. —Lizzie Manno

18. 070 Shake: “Guilty Conscience”

Songs about infidelity are so common, they have their own Wikipedia page, but songs as relentlessly melodic as this Modus Vivendi standout are rare. 070 Shake (born Danielle Balbuena, aka Dani Moon) recalls walking in on her lover “on another one’s body,” backed by luminescent synths and booming bass that are meticulously interwoven with her reverberant vocals. Her discovery isn’t so much a devastating blow as it is a relief: “I caught you but you never caught me / I was sitting here waitin’ on karma / There goes my guilty conscience.” Her feelings aren’t quite that simple, of course—feelings never are—but “Guilty Conscience” is simply gorgeous, a glittering future-pop hit that feels like a suffocating weight lifting off you. —Scott Russell

17. Samia: “Fit N Full”

Samia doesn’t approach songwriting with an aim to manifest a better version of herself—instead, she thrives on divulging how broken she feels. Her debut album The Baby is littered with instances of hesitancy or desperation. She recounts a missed opportunity to befriend someone she admired on “Waverly” and throws herself into unhealthy situations just for the artistic inspiration on “Triptych.” However, you can still find moments of playfulness and triumph. “Fit N Full” fantasizes about baring it all in a restaurant, and “Is There Something in the Movies?” cuts a toxic person out of her life. —Lizzie Manno

16. Run the Jewels: “ooh la la (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)”

El-P’s first verse on “ooh la la” is meticulously rhythmic as he fires off internal rhymes and sharp wordplay, and its best line (“When we talk, we Kalashnikov, keep us in your thoughts”) likens his rapid delivery to an automatic rifle while also tipping his hat to the ridiculous, empty statements provided by politicians after rampant gun violence. Along with a stark piano loop, record scratches from DJ Premier, and Killer Mike’s feisty bars of his own (“First of all, fuck the fuckin’ law, we is fuckin’ raw / Steak tartare, oysters on the half-shell, sushi bar”), “ooh la la” is the clever, catchy, take-no-shit rap anthem we needed in 2020. —Lizzie Manno

15. Choir Boy: “Complainer”

Choir Boy have always been sarcastic. Their name is appropriated from an epithet frontman Adam Klopp was given as a child, while their sound has always toyed with ideas of sincerity in relation to being vulnerable. That’s exactly what the Dais Records synth-pop favorites are doing on “Complainer”—the group contends with the masculine taboo on whining, contrasting that in the pulpy video with Klopp participating in a back-alley fight club, weighed down by heavy metal chains. The track recalls the poppiest moments of Talk Talk and Flock of Seagulls, spackled with ironic angst and romantic synth. —Austin Jones

14. Phoebe Bridgers: “Kyoto”

There’s something indelibly human about wanting something desperately until the moment that you get it. We’re wired to long for the unknown and the out of reach, projecting our hopes onto anything (or anywhere) we imagine is a fix for what’s broken in us. Phoebe Bridgers does just this on “Kyoto,” conjuring piercing sadness even on Punisher’s most upbeat cut. “I wanted to see the world / Then I flew over the ocean / And I changed my mind,” she sings over spritely horns and hammering toms, taking aim at the moving target of self-actualization with her characteristic dark humor and detailed songwriting. “Kyoto” gnaws at you, rather than laying you low outright like the average Bridgers track—its instrumental brightness and energy are a testament to the doomed optimism of seeking absolution elsewhere, but remaining unable to leave yourself behind. —Scott Russell

13. U.S. Girls: “4 American Dollars”

“4 American Dollars” scintillates with the groove of ’70s pop, dipped in Meg Remy’s signature irony and scathing wit. Its accompanying video (dir. Emily Pelstring and Remy) is stark in color, as many multi-colored lips dance around the screen and show hidden dollars, slot machines and mirrors hidden within their mouths. By the end, a bunch of green-screened dancers exit the backdrop, now hopping in their green morph suits. Like any good U.S. Girls track, “4 American Dollars” contends subliminally with societal pressures and the complexities of life, doing so with a razor-sharp tongue and eschewing eye-roll-worthy obviousness. —Austin Jones

12. Bartees Strange: “Boomer”

Bartees Strange throws curveballs throughout Live Forever’s 11 tracks, but they never seem out of place. Atmospheric soul bookends the album, a style where Strange excels, but there’s plenty to be surprised and delighted by in between. Promo singles “Mustang” and “Boomer” harness a visceral power, with the former diving into hooky synth-rock and sweltering punk, and the latter dishing out hip-hop verses and giddy blues rock. —Lizzie Manno

11. Yves Tumor: “Gospel for a New Century”

Listening to Heaven To A Tortured Mind will make you question your own memories of Yves Tumor, because they’ve never sounded more immediate, more relatable or more desirously messy. Their trademark filth and trickster persona are still present, though they’ve graduated from demon to the devil himself. Album opener “Gospel for a New Century” is their most straightforward song to date, a playful horn-based rock song that channels the individual iconoclasms of Prince and Marilyn Manson. The Isamaya Ffrench-directed video offers the perfect visual for the familiar archetype Tumor plays throughout the album—a cloven-hoofed devil with diabolical cheekbones, not unlike Tim Curry’s Lord of Darkness from Legend, with a legion of Soul Train-ready devils marching behind them. —Austin Jones

10. Lido Pimienta: “Eso Que Tu Haces”

Toronto-based Afro-Colombian artist Lido Pimienta’s Polaris Prize-nominated second album Miss Colombia, which follows her Polaris Prize-winning debut La Papessa, is one of this year’s finest—brimming with grand experimental pop and flowing electro-cumbia. As the album grapples with her multicultural identity, the songs also exist outside of easy categorization. Second single “Eso Que Tu Haces” comes from one’s desire to protect themselves—even if that means uncomfortably confronting someone—and it’s painted with the most emotive pop vocals imaginable. With a swell of synths and horns behind her, Pimienta shakes the ground with the lift of her chorus vocals. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you can detect the pain and strength from her effortlessly delivered voice. It’s almost celestial, and the light cumbia rhythms will make you want to step outside and pirouette in the sun. —Lizzie Manno

9. Thundercat: “Dragonball Durag”

“Baby girl, how do I look in my durag?” Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) asks on track nine of his new album It Is What It Is. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more earworm-y line than this one in 2020—you’ll go to sleep hearing it and wake up with it, too. The line’s goofy, easily quotable nature aside, Bruner’s delivery is impeccable—he breezes through the middle phrase as if it’s one word, and then ascends with soulful beauty on “durag.” The song is a reflection of his easygoing humor and eccentric musicianship as it mentions his love of comic books and cats (“I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good”), and also rests on exuberant grooves. —Lizzie Manno

8. Adrianne Lenker: “anything”

Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker brings scenes to life with breathtaking ease. On “anything,” a highlight from her latest solo album songs, we get striking images of a grisly dog bite and a shirt soaking up mango juice, juxtaposed with sincere tales of desire. Lenker’s yearning is unconventional in that it’s radically benevolent. She desperately awaits the chance to “listen to the sound of you blinking” and “kiss your eyes again.” It’s precious details like these that make us want to see the entire world through Lenker’s eyes. —Lizzie Manno

7. Sault: “Fearless”

Part of Sault’s brilliance is their effortlessness, and part of it is their ability to construct songs that are at once spacious and ornate. On their pair of recent Untitled albums, tumbling rhythms, dazzling keyboards and defiant vocals combine and radiate mastery at every turn. Track two on Untitled (Rise), “Fearless” is an embodiment of that mastery, opening with vigorous drums and enveloping neo-soul before blooming into a dramatic, string-laden disco-fusion track. The song’s message itself is just as towering, as it captures the vast fears and hopes that come with the Black experience, along with the longing for one’s roots. The ability to digest all the horrific oppression against one’s people and still have a desire to wear a mask of fearlessness is inspiring and powerful, but also somewhat tragic that some feel any outward sign of dejection is just giving the oppressors a leg up. —Lizzie Manno

6. Bob Dylan: “Murder Most Foul”

Bob Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is sold as two discs: nine songs on one CD and one song on the other. “Murder Most Foul,” his single-disc song, is nearly 17 minutes long—and Dylan needed every one of those minutes to deliver all 1,406 words over the blues trance of a rumbling piano and a sawing viola. In “Murder Most Foul,” the descriptions of John F. Kennedy’s death are tied to the Beatles and Beach Boys, John Lee Hooker and Thelonious Monk, as if the songs were not only a reaction to the murder but also an antidote, as if the rich variety of American life—both heart-sinking and soul-lifting—is reflected in its songs as much as in its headlines. Dylan evokes the broad sweep of American music, using the death of a popular figure to mark an end of innocence, and also using American music as a thermometer to take the temperature of American culture as a whole. —Geoffrey Himes

5. Waxahatchee: “Fire”

This Saint Cloud track is as strong as it is vulnerable, with triumphant, quiet drums that serve as a battle cry for Katie Crutchfield’s newfound determination in sobriety. Most notably, it’s Waxahatchee’s most direct pop song since Ivy Tripp’s excellent “La Loose,” a return to form with a distinctly modern, distinctly Crutchfield touch. —Austin Jones

4. Perfume Genius: “Describe”

Mike Hadreas returned this year like you’ve never heard him before. “Describe” finds Hadreas exploring all-new sonic territory, embodying Americana classics like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, with arena-filling slide guitars and roots-rock, blue-collar attitude. Of course, given who Hadreas has been as an artist so far, it feels intentionally iconoclastic, a play on masculine expectations and boundaries. The video opens with Hadreas taking a big, confrontational puff of a cigar, donning a dirty white tank top as he occupies a prairie farm. —Austin Jones

3. Fiona Apple: “I Want You to Love Me”

On her album opener “I Want You To Love Me,” Fiona Apple sings, “Time is elastic,” over staccato piano while she describes the kind of love that swallows you whole, akin to the passion she described on “Hot Knife” back in 2012. It’s all frantic and skittering before climaxing in an uncomfortable fit of Apple’s whimpers, forcing us to be beholden to whatever pain or evils she’s emoting so ferally. —Ellen Johnson

2. Soccer Mommy: “Circle the Drain”

No song from February’s color theory crystallizes Sophie Allison’s approach to her exceptional second album as Soccer Mommy quite as well as “circle the drain.” On its face, the track makes two opposing truths plain, juxtaposing irresistibly upbeat jangle-pop instrumentation with quietly devastating lyrics. Allison sings about “a feeling that boils in my brain,” admitting she’s tired of putting on a brave face to mask the slow but steady internal collapse she feels powerless to prevent. The disconnect between the song’s bright-eyed sound and bleak lyrics is key to the album’s overall aesthetic, as Allison explained: “I wanted the experience of listening to color theory to feel like finding a dusty old cassette tape that has become messed up over time, because that’s what this album is: an expression of all the things that have slowly degraded me personally. The production warps, the guitar solos occasionally glitch, the melodies can be poppy and deceptively cheerful. To me, it sounds like the music of my childhood distressed and, in some instances, decaying.” The song is both a Pyrrhic victory and par for the 2020 course—to some extent, we’re all “falling apart these days,” and if we’re lucky, we’re doing it this beautifully. —Scott Russell

1. Christine and the Queens: “People, I’ve been sad”

Christine and the Queens’ latest album, Chris, saw Héloïse Letissier grow into one of the best and brightest pop stars. Its crisp, funk-laced pop was more than just highly danceable—its sensuality and subversion of gender roles were also incredibly inspiring. Still on a high, the French artist returned this year with a new EP, La vita nuova, and shared its lead single “People, I’ve been sad,” possibly her best track to date. After dishing out lines about social isolation, she reassures us, “You know the feeling,” and when paired with a stylish, downtempo groove, she somehow makes an introspective, dejected moment feel glorious. Like many of her songs, she wrings out so much pleasure from her dramatic, playful delivery, and this one is no different—her bilingual vocals are alluring and graceful. —Lizzie Manno

Listen to Paste’s Best Songs of 2020 playlist on Spotify here.

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